How to Gain Publicity – newsworthiness

Every week, I get calls from people who want to know how to gain publicity for their business or cause. Many are looking for a quick fix when what they really need is something much more strategic. I can’t blame them. After all, who wants to hear that a solid PR campaign takes strategy, planning and hard work? Or that it usually takes time. And it should always involve research.

But it does. And to tell you otherwise would be disingenuous. It’s a bit like weight loss. Who wouldn’t want to take a pill and have the weight fall off without ever having to break a sweat or reduce calories. It just doesn’t work that way.

Any one of my journalist colleagues can regale you with stories about the quick fix mindset sort of pitches they get daily. In the end, however, they hurt not help someone’s chances on the “how to gain publicity” front.

Imagine your inbox flooded with people who know nothing about what you do demanding, yup, demanding that you do something for them when you’re not even in the right business. But it happens to journalists all the time. Business writers are pitched entertainment stories, investigative reporters are pitched stories about fun fairs and, well, you get the idea. It’s no wonder some journalists have just stopped answering the phone…

Not every story is a media story. Some might be better suited to being told on your website or in your company’s newsletter or on a video post on YouTube.

Knowing how to gain publicity via traditional media channels means knowing if your story is newsworthy to the outlet and particular person you are pitching.

What makes a story newsworthy?

1. Relevance to the journalist and media outlet

The vast majority of pitches that journalists get have nothing to do with any kind of understanding of what the reporter or the media outlet covers. The one size fits all pitch doesn’t work. It never really did but it works less now than ever. Any pitch has to have immediate relevance to what matters to the end users of the outlet: its readers, viewers or listeners. Anyone who has information, advice or insights into a story they are currently covering is particularly golden.

2. Being topical

There are issues and topics that pick up steam in the media because their readers, viewers and listeners care about it. Know what stories are generating buzz.  Scour the news and ask your friends and colleagues what’s capturing their attention in the news. You may have a local spin on something that has been getting a lot of national attention. Or you may be part of a local phenomenon with national repercussions. Knowing what’s trending in media circles is crucial to topicality.

3. Scope

A story has newsworthiness if lots of people are or could be affected. You can’t fake this, and you can’t lie about it. We once watched someone try and position a disease as much more common than it was because she felt it gave it more punch. Some very red-faced journalists ran with the story but then felt duped when others within the medical community set them straight.

4. Proximity

Local media outlets don’t care so much about things happening elsewhere or that which is national in scope. They need local angles – people, places or things that make the story relevant to their readers. There are other sources for readers to get news about the world and community papers aren’t it. A community response to a world story, however, that may well be of interest. What a local community group is doing to respond to a disaster covered in the news may well be of interest.

5. Involvement of someone high profile

Like it or not, celebrity sells. But what constitutes a celebrity can change drastically depending on the situation. A local cause might find it useful to align itself to a higher profile institution or someone with name recognition who can act as a spokesperson or who can at least endorse the organiation’s work. Someone higher profile can be helpful as a spokesperson, active supporter or honourary patron. While honourary patrons are generally not paid, spokespeople often are, and the more famous the person is (rightly or wrongly), the more money they are likley to be paid. That said, you might find someone who cares deeply about your cause for personal reasons and who might help you by lending her name to it.

One word of caution. Just as it is important to make sure that the high profile person is worthy of the cause, it is also important to ensure that the cause or event is worthy of the person. I think of Prince Phillip, a champion of fine architecture, called upon to open the new annex of Vancouver’s City Hall. The original building is a beautiful work, and I imagine the Prince and his staff assumed that the annex would be as well.

Um, not so much.

Prince Phillip took to the mic and said: “I declare this thing open. Whatever it is.” Ouch.

6. The offbeat

Journalists are always on the scour for those who take a different path or turn what’s expected on its side. Doing or being the unexpected is a great media angle. Weird coincidences, things made out of unusual materials, anything where common sense or a common understanding of reality is turned on its head does very well.

7. Struggle

It is what makes us human. It inspires us to greatness, love, revenge and sometimes ruin. Where there is struggle, there is life and there is conflict. Conflict and scope make something newsworthy. I think of struggle as the wild card. Put it with any of the other six attributes and you get:

8. Human-ness

Big ideas are hard to understand theoretically. We may get them intellectually but until you’ve seen something through the eyes of someone who has lived it, its hard to really grasp it. Something can be newsworthy if it can help us to feel something profound. At Babble On Communications, we often say that to change someone’s mind, you sometimes have to go through their heart. Even sports and business sections and publications have room for stories that illuminate the human condition. We are all divided in so many ways, but we are all bound together by our humanity and our capacity to feel.

There you have it. These are big picture items, but they are crucial for anyone who wants to know how to gain publicity. Knowing whether or not your story is newsworthy or not is aboslutely critical before reaching out to any media. The goal should be to build bridges, not burn them.



  1. Laura’s avatar

    Good tips, Laurie. A lot of times business leaedrs, who are used to controlling everything in the world around them, cannot understand why they can’t dictate a message to the media or be allowed to read it over before it goes to print.The media is NOT under their control. It is a tough concept for some people.News itself is very hard define and it changes every day depending what else is going on.I tell people to think about what stories they take the time out of their busy day to read or watch. That’s news. A team of journalists might work weeks to put together an elaborate investigative piece, but it is not news if no one reads or watches it. I suggest that marketing people skip the press release as much as possible. It is very rare that truly interesting and engaging news comes from a press release. I am not a fan of press releases.Instead, call or drop a short note to reporters. You’ll find out if it is news.



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